Several years ago we moved to the West Side from the Northeast Heights. We didn’t know it at the time, but the reason we moved then was the same reason we left Albuquerque entirely this fall.
Our home in the Heights was modest but beautiful. I said when we moved in that I’d retire in that house. My wife and I agreed it was an ideal place to live out our old age in rocking chairs on the back porch, reading Hemingway, taking in the sun, drinking mint juleps.
It was on a quiet street with parks on either end, secluded from the traffic of the main thoroughfares. We were happy there — but then again, we were happy as renters in the South Valley before that and would be happy years later in yet another quadrant of the Duke City. (Perhaps the secret to happiness lies in the partner, not the property.)
In four short years things started changing. It wasn’t political, or at least not noticeably so. It didn’t follow any national trend or observable sea-change in society. But it happened quickly.
Seemingly overnight we had bums zombie-walking down our street in the middle of the day, dragging blankets behind them as they shuffled past, looking over their shoulders and snooping in yards.
Some good neighbors left the area and others signaled similar intentions. They rented out their homes to less than desirable people. “Nick” moved in next door with his pitbull. He had a job hauling construction materials from work sites to the dump, but instead of taking said construction materials to said dump, he pocketed the cash and burned the materials in his backyard, which, in a modest neighborhood where each home is lucky to have six feet of separation from the dividing fence, was basically our backyard. The BOOM of his accelerant-doused fires rattled our windows.
A mother and her two adult sons blessed us with their presence a few months later. One of the sons was a street-walker on Central with a ponytail and children’s backpack. He glanced over his shoulder at every car even on our street. The other offset their rent by doing yard work. The five or six minutes he lasted wielding a hoe was agonizing for every neighbor within earshot. He screamed obscenities at his mother, who stood at the front door, screaming obscenities back.
A few doors down a polite and busy middle-aged methamphetamine addict brought a new vehicle to his dad’s house every few weeks. For hours every night he would be under the hood, cranking wrenches, presumably fixing things.
Methamphetamine, it turns out, is not the greatest stimulant for mechanical endeavors. The cars piled up, more broken than when they arrived.
When we moved to the West Side, we were fortunate enough to hit the market at just the right time. Property values were high, demand for our area was high, and we found a beautiful but poorly marketed home. Wall-to-wall carpet. A yard without a single plant in it. The photos were bad, so we got in low.
It wasn’t our forever home. We were on a five-year plan to find some land, some peace and quiet. But the market spiked again and our five-year plan materialized a couple years earlier than expected. We had planned ahead this time, putting every spare dollar into the house. Wood floors. New doors. Paint. Lighting. A ton of landscaping. And we cashed out.
Who’s to say if the market has peaked. Maybe it hasn’t, but our return on investment felt almost criminal, and it was to get the hell out of dodge.
So we did.
I sincerely thought leaving the city would be bitter-sweet. I anticipated that my kids would miss their old stomping grounds, their rooms, the familiarity of “home.” I thought my wife would regret the move away from the best neighbors a family could ask for. And in a way she does, as I do.
We were blessed to live in the type of neighborhood you see in old movies. Neighbors just dropped in to say hello. It wasn’t just borrowing a cup of sugar. It was spontaneous backyard barbecues, coming over to help unload plants and pavers and bags of soil from Home Depot, hearing us talking outside after the kids went to bed and bringing their “Rolling Rocker” speaker over for an all-night dance party in the backyard. We had dinners together and spent holidays at each others’ homes. I was up on my neighbor’s roof more times than I would have liked fixing his perpetually broken swamp cooler. We hauled gravel and cut down trees for each other. It was a true community of truly good people.
And they became true friends.
But even they started seeing the writing on the wall about what Albuquerque was becoming. The COVID lockdowns were a big change, forcing one couple to relocate to Florida on a whim that was so fast it felt insulting to those of us they left behind.
Another couple lost their daughter to a drunk driver.
Yet another lost their son in a drive-by shooting downtown.
These were not strangers whose children were quick mentions on the nightly news. They were not faceless statistics. These were friends.
Despite all of the good, conversations always turned to the bad. It was unavoidable. It was everywhere, and it seemed to be getting worse.
We had made the decision to home-school after the governor implemented mandatory masking. We encouraged others to do the same in hopes that sheer numbers would force state leaders to reverse course. If you do not revolt, the powerful will not relent. But our friends didn’t. Our readers didn’t. They complained online and bent the knee to the governor’s requirement to mask children as a condition of attending schools and fairs.
Conversations about moving away became more frequent. Our conversations on the porch at night grew less peaceful. Then they became urgent.
What was the point of living in a large city when its amenities were mostly off-limits to people who didn’t want to muzzle themselves or their children everywhere they went?
With a local electorate that can’t say no to any bond measure and a local government that can’t seem to make anything better no matter how much they tax us or how much of a budget surplus they get, the country life became more and more appealing.
We shared the idea with our friends and neighbors and were surprised by their support. Everyone we told said they would do the same if they could — but for work, school, nearby family. Everyone had a similar plan…someday.
It went fast after that. We got ten offers on our house in 36 hours and we found a nice place away from everything, on enough land to plant a few crops, and at a price we could afford.
And just like that we renounced our Albuquerque citizenship.
It’s quiet out here.
The birds and coyotes and buffalo grass blowing in the wind remind you that you’re still in New Mexico. No gunshots. No constant hum of traffic. No airplanes. No speeding cars or barking dogs.
I have seen more sunrises in last 14 days than I have my entire life. The full spectrum of colors of the New Mexico desert are unpainted masterpieces at dusk and at dawn. Everything is slower out here. Sometimes to a fault.
Country folk operate at a different pace. It took two weeks to get internet. Trash service was delayed. Getting a mail key happened when the post office decided it would happen.
And that’s just fine.
We had no delusions about what we were getting into. Gardening in more than a few ten-by-two foot flower beds is a chore requiring hard labor and constant attention. Old houses have endless problems. Roofs need shingling. Rooms need painting. Art needs hanging. Sinks and lights and floors need replacing.
It was a fair trade.
There are no transients outside of city limits, because the homeless don’t have free food and shelter and medical care to draw them in.
No matter where homelessness begins, where immigrants enter our borders, or where refugees are dropped off, they all ultimately migrate to the largest municipalities. It’s not rocket science. Cities offer government housing, free and medical services, clothing drives from do-gooders, and free transportation to all of the handouts they’ll ever need.
There is poverty in rural New Mexico, but it is a different kind than what you see in cities. People live on less. They haul their own water. Many don’t have internet. They work with their hands, not at computers. There is a significantly lower concentration of wealth, and as such a smaller tax base, fewer resources, and more distant amenities.
Whether any of those are pros or cons is a matter of perspective.
As for the pangs of nostalgia, they’re easily offset by the beauty of the unadulterated New Mexican landscapes, and when what you’ve left behind is loud and bright and dangerous. When you arrive at a place that is quiet and open, with views from every window and land with endless possibilities, it is impossible to muster much in the way of longing for what’s lost. Because it feels like all gain.
Country living isn’t the life for everyone. For us, that was the point.
We still hold out hope for Albuquerque. We pray for its future, because its fate plays a role in the fate of the entire state, from Raton to Lordsburg, politically as well as economically.
One day our kids may want to try their hand at city life. College or employment or love may draw them into Duke City limits, and for their safety and prosperity we pray for the safety and prosperity of Albuquerque itself. For friends we’ve left and their families, we hope things improve.
And we hope for their well wishes in turn.
Our journey has just begun. It will be long and exhausting. We aren’t escaping city life just to sit inside watching TV. Work awaits. Land does not till itself. The cords of wood that will heat our home needs splitting and stacking. Chicken coops need building, puppies need training, fences need mending.
As a society we have lost our connection to our land, to our food, to the skills of basic survival.
Twelve years in Albuquerque voting and talking and writing and advocating for a more sane political future has done little to move the needle. We cannot control what others do, how they vote, or how they live.
We can only control ourselves. And we shall, in rocking chairs on the back porch, reading Hemingway, taking in the sun, drinking mint juleps.